Why Do Wars Happen? Bellicosity and the 21st Century With Jeremy Black

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Just finished reading Jeremy Black’s excellent Why Wars Happen.  This is the the third of Black’s books that I’ve read, and while they’ve all been thought-provoking, less than easy to read, and extensively researched, this has been by far my favorite of his works.  Black, a prolific author and Professor of History at Exeter University, is a leading authority on military history and a proponent of overcoming euro-centrism that has been so common in the field.  (Of course, military history is itself a field that is no longer in academic vogue.)

While I’ve read and enjoyed single volume histories of warfare from scholars such as John Keegan,  the focus of this tome is on causality.  For that, Black focuses on culture, and in particular, “bellicosity” – that is, the cultural attitudes, inclinations and institutions that encourage violence.  Black takes us on a wide tour, starting in 1450, that spans the whole world and attempts to analyze violence between different cultures, violence within cultures, and civil wars (itself a helpful typology).  One of the most interesting aspects was his ongoing discussion of the sheer difficulty of defining war.  For instance, how do we differentiate war from rebellion?  Is ethnic cleansing war or crime?  Are mass uprisings wars or revolutionary movements?

By far, the chapter I enjoyed most was the next-to-last chapter on warfare in the 1990’s up through today (granted, this was written pre-9/11).  He aptly narrates the decline in bellicosity of Western societies and describes factors associated with this shift.  Thus, he says,

More generally, in the post-1945 world, there has been a growing abstraction of death and suffering, a process linked both to medical technology and secularism…ordinary people have become more and more comprehensively insulated from personal pain, and are less accustomed to consider it normal and reasonable…Another relevant, but complex, shift is due to changes in patterns of expendability amongst young adult males…smaller families have made every child precious, and the cult of youth in modern Western consumer culture is not a cult of organized violence.

As regards to literature and organized violence, he writes,

…anti-war attitudes dominate serious adult literature in the West and have done so for several decades, with war presented as callous disorder in popular works such as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22…within academic circles, peace studies are more acceptable than those of war. (Why Wars Happen [New York: NYU Press 1998] 223, 224)

These quotes are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  Be warned: he does not write for a popular audience (in my opinion!).  As much as I like and respect Black (whom I’ve had occasion to meet more than once), his work is no easy read.  I was a history major, and yet his knowledge is so vast and his examples so numerous, I confess I had a difficult time reading this book at sustained intervals.  Nevertheless, the juice is worth the squeeze.  If you are interested in the causes of war, and not interested in simple answers or idealistic, modern/liberal gas, this is a book well worth your time and effort.

For theologians, in particular, this book raises a significant question:  If, as Black suggests, the decline in bellicosity is a Western paradigm over the last 20-40 years, then how can the recent rediscovery of Christian pacifism (especially in the work of Yoder and Hauerwas) be deemed “counter-cultural”?  If Black is right, Christians pacifists are in fact riding the cultural tide.  Interesting.

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2 thoughts on “Why Do Wars Happen? Bellicosity and the 21st Century With Jeremy Black”

  1. Perhaps you can pin some of the surge on cultural tides, but that doesn’t negate the history of nonviolence within notable segments of church history. Moreover, it may be that, in some ways, segments of the church are preceded by their surrounding culture in positive shifts (e.g., women’s rights). In other words, it should not be assumed that cultural shifts are necessarily negative.

    In any case, I find this fascinating. Maybe the whole world will continue to see war as less of an option.

  2. As important as those small but “notable” segments of church history are, Christian pacifism has been far from the norm in the life of the church.

    Keep in mind, also, that Black’s prescription only applies to the West. It’s not necessarily a positive thing that Western powers are becoming less willing to engage in and sustain wars while the rest of the world still thinks war is a great way to get what you want.

    Keep in mind that the West also entered the 20th century thinking that the era of war was over and that the new internationalism would make wars impossible. Our optimism was repeatedly shattered.

    Another of his arguments is that calls for the end, outlawing, or otherwise elimination of war is an intellectualist and modernist fantasy. For all of human history, warfare has been part (and not necessarily a positive one) of how human societies relate to one another. The easy money says this will continue to be the case.

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